I am so pleased to have you here today, Judith. Once I read your debut novel, I just had to have you on the blog! The novel was amazing. Not only did I get to dip my toes into Greek mythology, but I shared a sweet romance between Achilles and Briseis. Perhaps many of our readers today studied Homer’s Iliad in high school or college/university. I can only say, I wish you had been my teacher.
I had a great deal of fun teaching the Iliad over the years. To my surprise it was a regular favorite among my students, despite being three thousand years old or so. I’m glad you enjoyed Hand of Fire. I’ve had these semi-mythological, semi-historical characters ruling my life for a long time now as they directed how I should tell their story. I know it sounds a bit crazy, but characters do seem to take on a life independent of their authors. I share this madness with a lot of other writers!
Let’s get to talking about how you come to write Hand of Fire.
Hand of Fire is my debut novel. I am a classicist by training—that is ancient Greek literature and history—and as an undergraduate, many, many years ago, I fell in love with Homer’s Iliad, an epic poem set in the Trojan War. I had plenty of opportunities to teach the poem over the years, and it was a perennial favorite of my students. Together my students and I had wondered how Briseis, the captive woman who sparks the central conflict of the poem, could have loved Achilles—which is what Homer shows. After all, Achilles had killed her husband and brothers, destroyed her city and turned her from princess to slave—hardly a heartwarming courtship. Despite Briseis’s importance to the plot, she gets only a handful of lines. In those few words, the one clear notion expressed is her sorrow when she is forced to leave Achilles. So I had this puzzle that gnawed away at me over the years and eventually gave rise to a novel.
I should say I always liked Achilles, the existential hero who calls the whole war into question—which shows he’s no brainwasher—so the answer wasn’t some ancient version of Stockholm Syndrome. I had to dig deeper into the psychology of these two semi-mythological characters.
Can you tell us a little about your main character and the research you did to create her?
Homer tells us only that Briseis was a princess of a city called Lyrnessos, which is allied to Troy, and that she was captured by Achilles. Not enough to build a main character! To develop who she was I needed both an understanding of what she could plausibly have done in the course of her life in this time and place, and her inner psychology.
Intriguingly, the world Briseis lived in—the details of its everyday life, religious beliefs, language, etc. have only come to light recently—dug from the earth by contemporary archaeologists. We now know Briseis’s world of Troy and Lyrnessos were semi-independent kingdoms that are culturally and politically related to the powerful Hittite Empire that ruled what we now think of as Turkey (and somewhat beyond) during the Late Bronze Age (approx 1250 BCE). The cuneiform libraries of the Hittite Empire have begun to be translated and provided the material I needed: customs of daily life, court intrigues, magical rites, religious practices. Here I found lots of juicy details, although “wrapped” in a somewhat dry package that needed transformation into fiction that is fun to read. I discovered in this clay tablet evidence of a powerful role for Briseis, that of a healing priestess, called in Hittite a hasawa.
That role made perfect sense for a woman who fell in love with Achilles, the warrior who is also a healer and a bard. These priestesses used the telling of sacred stories as part of their religious work as healers—a duality of skills Achilles would have appreciated deeply.
These two stories, that of Briseis and Achilles—one taken from clay-recorded history and one from mythology—meshed and a strong-willed redhead began to form in my imagination and take on multiple dimensions.
Briseis is a smart young woman in an ancient culture that, counter to our modern stereotypes of the past, expects her to be powerful, literate and a leader. Briseis succeeds in rising to those expectations despite the circumstances arrayed against her—and she’s strong enough to take on the mightiest of the Greek heroes. I think some people will feel I’ve made her too powerful and that will feel “modern” to them, but I found that influential role for Briseis right there in the tablets. It is truly not anachronistic.
Would you classify your writing more as plot driven or character driven?
Hand of Fire is very much character driven. I wanted to figure out who Briseis could have been—after a while she became very real to me and when I found myself struggling with a scene it usually meant I was trying to make Briseis do something that simply wasn’t in her nature.
Achilles stumped me for the longest time. He’s larger than life, half-immortal and deeply conflicted. In an early version I had him as one of the point-of-view characters, but it didn’t work. I couldn’t hear his voice. I finally wrote his part of the story as epic poetry in iambic pentameter, which is the closest I could get in English to the hexameter verse of Homer. Once I used a medium that was mythological and writ large, he gradually revealed himself. Later I used that understanding to remove the poetry and slide in his character in the more standard format of scenes.
The manuscript I’m working on now is a historical mystery and for that I find I had to develop a plot outline early on, but even so the characters keep shifting that plot around to suit themselves. Characters are a very bossy lot once you let them get into your imagination.
What do you hope readers take away from your book?
Despite being a book about war with a lot of death and violence, the fundamental theme of Hand of Fire is one of hope. I think people will come away with a renewed sense of the resiliency of humanity and of women in particular.
Also, my aim was to build the Bronze Age world of these Greeks and Trojans vividly enough that readers feel like they’ve lived there. For most people, that’s a new and exotic world and yet it will feel surprisingly familiar in some ways. I guess you could call Hand of Fire historical escapism with a positive message.
Tell us a bit about your life as a writer.
For me, being a writer boils down to two essential things. Most important, you sit down each day and get your word count down, whatever number you’ve decided works. No waiting for the mood to hit. And part of that is giving yourself permission to write whatever comes out and not freeze yourself up about whether it’s good or bad on any particular day. The corollary of that is a writer has to be very open to critique and editing.
Which brings me to the other essential thing a writer’s life must include: community. You need to connect with other writers and readers of fiction—in my case primarily historical fiction and historical mystery. A lot of my connecting came about because I decided to start reviewing historical fiction a few years ago and I also share other people’s posts and ideas through my website and elsewhere online and at conferences. Long before I had a completed manuscript, I’d already familiarized myself with what was working in the genre and, even more importantly, I’d become friends with a lot of excellent writers. I turn to them for advice and guidance all the time, but you can’t lean on people with whom you don’t share a genuine give and take. There are many ways to build a community and I think every writer has to find their own rhythm to that process. But do not try this profession alone!
What are you working on now?
I’m in the middle of a historical mystery featuring the Hittite Queen Puduhepa as “sleuth.” She would be as famous as Cleopatra if she hadn’t been buried by the sands of time. Her seal is on the first extant peace treaty in history next to her foe, Pharaoh Ramses II. Now that she’s been dug out, I’ve taken her remarkable personality, which seems perfectly suited for solving mysteries, and I am writing a series. She ruled from her teens until she was at least eighty, so I think this series may outlast me.
I’m also outlining a sequel to Hand of Fire—and Briseis may just make a major move to Cyprus. It’s such a gorgeous and intriguing island, covered in Bronze Age ruins, with several qualities that make it perfect for her. But as readers of Hand of Fire will realize, Briseis has got some business to take care of nearer to home before she can travel so far away.
Thank you so much for joining us at Booktalk with Eileen. I hope to see you make your way back here with the historical mystery and the sequel to Hand of Fire.
The pleasure was all mine.
Below are links to purchase Hand of Fire and links to connecting with author Judith Starkston. Here’s a link to her tour schedule: Hand of Fire Fireship Press Virtual Tour .